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Toddcast - Season 3, Episode 2 

“Death in the Workpiace” 

“Once upon a time, in a public service not far away... ”. 

It is morning. You wake up, shower, and dress for work. The birds are singing, the 
coffee is soothing. It's another day in the public service... business as usual... Only, it's 

A police car, a fire truck and an ambulance are clustered in front of your building. Inside, 
the anxiety is palpable, and when the elevator reaches your floor, it only worsens. 
Everything looks exactly as it was, except for the troubled expressions on familiar faces. 
And finally you feel the dread permeating your body. Your chest trembles, your stomach 
writhes with nausea. You feel directionless, but your feet find the way to your cubicle. 

You sit in your chair, afraid to check your email, listening to the sounds of movement 
around the floor, unaware of the passing time... until you hear your name called softly. 
Your manager is beckoning you to follow her to a quiet room. 

Your colleague and friend has died, she says. The cause is not known, she says. A 
counsellor will be arriving soon. Your team has gathered in the boardroom to wait. Are 
you alright? Do you need anything? Some water, perhaps? She leads you down the 

The counsellor is kind. There are boxes of tissue on the table. Several people are 
crying. Others are visibly distraught. One person looks angry. Two others wear blank, 
unreadable expressions. 

So many questions are asked. What has happened? When will we know more? Is there 
anything that anyone could have done to prevent this? Has the family been notified? 
What do we do now? But no answer can lessen the pain and shock and fear that 
envelopes the room. 

At the end of the day, you return home to your family. You put on the practiced face that 
displays an emotion you don't really feel because you're not ready to talk about it. And 
there's no need, really. You cannot - you will not - believe that today has happened. 

But then, tomorrow comes. You check your email, and there it is. An official message 
from your Director. It is with... great sadness... cherished colleague and friend... natural 
causes... service arrangements... words that cannot be read through the tears burning 
down each cheek. | todd@, | Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International 


Hello and welcome, GC. I'm Todd Lyons, and you're listening to Toddcast, Season 3, 
Episode 2: a show for, and about, public servants. 

Do we fully understand the extent of relationships that are formed with colleagues? 
People whom we spend a third of our lives with. People that we spend as much time 
with as our own family. People whom we undertake significant projects with over long or 
intense periods of time, where we are able to see both the best and the worst aspects of 
their character - worrying, struggling, wrestling through the solution to a problem. Then, 
finally getting there. Sitting back, reminiscing about the experience. Laughing about 
points along the timeline that were so frustrating to endure. Expressing thanks to each 
other for everything that was given to make it all come together. Collaboration. It binds 
us together. Because how can you help but feel appreciation, admiration, and even 
platonic affection, for people who have given their time, their expertise... themselves to 
help create something great. And perhaps have done so over many years. 

In my experience, the death of a colleague has regrettably occurred every few years. 

The unexpected heart attack of a person whose only excess was, perhaps, being too 
married to the job. Working relentlessly through a bronchitis infection apparently led to 
exhaustion, oxygen deprivation, and fatality. 

An inconceivable suicide by a colleague who by all outward appearances was one of 
the most positive, supportive, conscientious people many of us had ever known. 

And, more recently, a person only a few years older than me. Exceptionally intelligent, 
apparently healthy, passing away at work from natural causes. A mentor to youth, 
discovered too late by an employee that they themselves had guided into the public 

How do we make sense of this when it happens to us? How do we resolve the feelings 
inside - the conflict that occurs when we are both professionals dedicated to serving the 
public, but also just people who are suffering. Overcome with guilt. Sick with loss. 
Grieving for the person who has died, or others we have known and lost, or perhaps 
even ourselves - reminded of our own mortality. 

On this episode, letters from public servants who have experienced the death of a 
colleague, a conversation with Jeremy Ames, and some of my own thoughts as a 
Registered Social Worker and former mental health counsellor. 

Come with me. 

Let’s begin by reading the first of several letters I received from listeners, relating their 
own experiences... | todd@, | Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International 


[Letter #1] 

A former colleague of mine passed away a couple of years ago, 
roughly a year after he retired. I had organized his retirement 
party, because I'd enjoyed working with him and I wanted to give 
him a proper send off. 

At the time, I imagined that he would have years ahead of him to 
enjoy what he loved most: fishing, working on his cottage, and 
spending time with his wife and family. After all, he retired in 
his fifties and in apparently good health. He'd lived 
responsibly and earned the right to enjoy the fruits of his 

After his passing, I learned that he had serious health issues 
that were undiagnosed, and discovered too late. I wished he'd 
taken better care of himself instead of worrying about others, 
but that was just who he was. 

I was angry. He didn't deserve to die this soon. 

I learned of his death in a voicemail left by his wife. I called 
her back to express my sympathies and she told me about the 
funeral arrangements, but the conversation soon broke down 
because we were quickly overcome with emotion, especially after 
she expressed how highly he'd thought of me. After putting the 
phone down, I was unproductive the remainder of the day. 

When I attended his funeral, I met his wife and family for the 
first time. It was nice to meet the people whom I'd heard so 
much about but was difficult to see my colleague laying there, 
lifeless in his casket. Gone was the kind and jovial man whom I 
fondly remembered. I left the funeral feeling sad and angry. He 
deserved better and life had short-changed him. His passing 
reminded me of the fragility of life. 

A few weeks later, I bumped into one of his former colleagues. 
This individual seemed indifferent to the news of his death. I 
was disturbed by the exchange given how long they'd worked 
together. I was left wondering whether people at work truly care 
about you as a person? How could you work with someone almost 
every day for years and not have any feeling about their death 
at such a young age? Are we really that self-centered as a | todd@, | Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International 


society? Is the world running out of empathy? Are there fewer 
genuine people in this world than there used to be? 

My colleague was a good person and a family man. At work, he was 
hardworking, unpretentious, and funny. You could tell he cared 
about others because he would go out of his way to help others 
and expect nothing in return except a simple thank you. For 
instance, he would regularly buy coffee for the entire office 
team to ensure we all had a positive start to our day. 

He always kept a positive attitude at work, even when things 
were stressful. During his breaks, he used to entertain us with 
stories of his children. I used to shake my head knowing that 
they got their stubbornness and their mischievous ways from 
their dad. One time, I innocently asked him about his siblings 
and his family of origin. I came to learn that he came from a 
very large family. His parents had passed away when he was very 
young. Some of his siblings were sent to live with relations 
while others were sent to live in an overcrowded orphanage, 
including him. He explained that this was how things were done 
at the time. 

When he was barely a teen, the living situation became 
intolerable at the orphanage and he ran away. He survived by 
taking on odd jobs and laying his head wherever he could. He 
missed out on an education, but was he was survivor with a 
strong work ethic. And through this resilience and hard work, he 
built a life for himself. He was proud of his accomplishments, 
but most importantly, he was proud of his family. 

In spite of the hardships that he faced in his life, he hadn't 
lost his compassion for others or his sense of humour. He loved 
to laugh and to make others laugh. The small trinkets that he 
gave me one Christmas still decorate my cubicle. My children 
still talk about the nice man at work who gave them Santa hats 
one year. I've continued reached out to his wife to see how she 
is doing and to invite her to lunch. While she hasn't made it 
out for lunch just yet, she is at least receptive to the idea. 

Working with her husband was one of the privileges of my life, 
and his premature passing reminds me that just because you have 
a rough start in life doesn't mean that it has to define who you 
are or what you become. You define that through your actions; | todd@, | Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International 


and life has no guarantees. Our time on this earth may be 
limited so time needs to be treated as a precious resource to be 
expended on what, and whom, we love most. 

[Interview with Jeremy Ames] 


So how well do we grasp the extent of relationships that are formed with 
colleagues? When there's a tragedy do we really understand the 
psychological impacts that it has on people in the workplace? 


Wow. That's a big one to start with. 


1 know, and we can wander around and come back to it. 


Okay, we might. That's a good question. 


The basis for the question is that people like me, people that may not 
have a lot of extended family, people who maybe their only family is their 
wife and their children and who lead a life that's maybe busy enough that 
we don't have a lot of friends outside of work. 1 guess, relatively speaking, 
the relationships that we have with coworkers at work loom a lot larger. 

So, to lose someone at work for someone that works a lot and maybe 
that's one of the major sources of their interaction with other people... 1 
guess the question comes, yeah, out of my own personal experience and 1 
don't know how representative 1 am of what a typical employees is like in 
the GC. But I'm wondering just how well we understand the extent of the 
depth of relationships that are formed at work and consequently how, how 
grief, how loss, how the death of a coworker affects this environment. 


Yeah. 1 think you're right about that. And you know, 1 think that's 
something we've been noticing a difference in even at EAS [Employee 
Assistance Services, an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) service 
provider] lately is 1 think it's changing with all of the talk about mental 
health and also with the National Standard [of Canada] for Psychological 
Health and Safety,that there’s starting to be a shift in that, that 1 think 
some people when they're, when they're talking about the Standard, for 
example, they talk about it as a bunch of rules or goals to get to. But 1 
think it's really about relationships though. You know, it's really about | todd@, | Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International 


connecting with people better at the workplace and that if you really 
connect with those people then you'll be happier at work and you'll be able 
to do that work. And so 1 guess the positive is, 1 hope that's where we're 
moving, is toward that. And 1 think it's always been there, but noticing that 
a lot more. We've noticed that though in even a lot of the work we're 
doing, and it's being acknowledged a lot more. So, when someone in the 
workplace does pass away acknowledging how big of a loss that is. 


How much flexibility do managers, does management have to sort of be 
understanding? Because if my wife died, if my child died, there's leave 
that 1 can take for that. If the equivalent of my best friend in the world dies, 
realistically, how much flexibility, how much understanding can 1, could 1 
expect to get? 


Well, that's a big question too. Um, that's a really good question too. 


1 don't want to be putting you on a spot and really just to sort of gauge 
your feeling about stuff. 


So my feeling, 1 guess, my personal feeling is that 1 hope that the 
understanding increases more and that, you know, we're at the workplace 
eight hours a day. We're working with these people sometimes more than 
we're seeing our own family and those relationships build. So that when 
someone does die, like, that workplace, relationships are really close 
relationships. So 1 think that's really important. 1 think we're moving toward 
that too and 1 do see that understanding when we speak with managers 
and, and get services in place, there seems to be that understanding and 
support 1 think at all levels. The question 1 can't really speak to though 1 
guess is around things like leave. I'm not sure where that fits in, but 1 think 
from a basic, like a human perspective, 1 think we're getting there. 


In your opinion, do you think it's something that we have to look at more 
closely in the same way that we've evolved maybe to understand the 
concept of family in a more general way that doesn't just look at husband 
and wife and children? 


Yeah, yeah, 1 think so. Or just relationships in a different way. Like 1 think 
we're really categorical with them. So, you know, traditionally it was like if | todd@, | Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International 6 

a member of the family died, that meant one thing and if someone else 
died then it was less of a thing because it was a friend, not a family 
member. And I think we can't really put those judgments on grief. So I 
remember once I did a seminar on doing grief work when I was a 
counselor and I remember them talking about animals and pets and the 
importance of animals and pets and how you form bonds with those as 
well. And that's grief. And so I agree with you on that, I guess, of looking 
and not judging the grief that when someone close to you dies, when you 
have that relationship, that that's, that's painful and difficult to get through. 
And normal for everyone. 

TODD People can handle grief very, very differently and they can start at 

different places in their handling like shock and anger and denial. Can you 
give some advice on how people can cope with the fallout after a loss like 
this has happened, and the professional and personal void that they feel 
in the workplace and maybe how Employee Assistance Services could 
factor into that? 

JEREMY What I think... I guess there are coping strategies for the person, but I 

think one of the big ones is for the person is not being isolated. So I look 
at it at how like the workplace can help with that. So I would say, you 
know, the most important thing maybe you can do is if you have a 
colleague that's going through grief is to just talk and listen to them. So it 
isn't about offering advice. It isn't about just telling them what they should 
be doing. It's about acknowledging how difficult that loss is and just 
listening to those people. And I think if you have a workplace of people 
who are making that space or supporting people, then that'll have a huge 
impact. That's going to help a lot. For us at EAR, we cover about 90 
percent of the federal government. Anyone can call us. We have a 24 
hour crisis line with crisis counselors, so we get that a lot. We cover a few 
different ministries like, like with the Forces and Veterans and so we're 
good sounding board for those people when they're not sleeping at night. 
If you're having a hard time then you can always call that and you've got 
that 24 hour line to call. And then we have the short term counseling 

TODD What's the number? I mean, is it one number across the public service? | todd@, | Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International 







For about 90 percent. A few of the different government departments have 
like internal ones or go with different organizations as well. So for our 
number we cover a lot of different ones. Ours is the 1-800-268-7708. And 
anyone who's going through grief or grieving—you've got an EAR. It might 
not be with us but you've always got an EAR if you're with the federal 
government. So I would recommend calling that. 

I don't know if it's a man thing or maybe just a personal thing, but one of 
the hurdles that I've had to go through as a person trying to be helpful also 
as a social worker, trying to be non intrusive but supportive, is the 
tendency to want to fix things, to want to be more directive and provide 
advice rather than what you're suggesting, which is to just be there to 
listen and take it in and just provide some support just by being an 
attentive person. What's the harm that can be done or what's the risk in 
trying to be directive to a person? lit feels like the right thing to do, but it's 
not. So could you expound on that? 

So I guess maybe I'll talk a little bit about my own experience going 
through through grief as well. One of the big components of grief is the 
isolation that you feel. You're in pain and it can be really isolating when 
you're the person that's hurting. And for myself going through things like 
that in the past, giving advice too quickly or being directive. I think it's 
isolating. What you really want when you're grieving is for people who 
care and connect with you and are there with you. So I think that's maybe 
the danger is of still having people who are just directive or providing 
advice really quickly, especially when it's that when it's stereotype type of 
stuff, is the isolation of the person feels. I think being heard is the best 
way of connecting with people and helping with the pain of grief. Because 
really it's time that helps you get through that grief, I think. 

And on the subject of time, is there a realistic amount of time that we can 
put on ourselves or that we could put on employees for them to get 
through the loss of someone that's a colleague? Maybe we didn't fully 
grasp the extent of their attachment to this person. It seems like there 
could be a wide variability, but what would you say is is a range, or is 
there a range? Can you narrow it? 

For myself. I'm not sure about the range. I guess I would say if the person 
is still crying everyday and struggling to do any type of work a year after it | todd@, | Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International 






happened, then I think you're getting into maybe a more complex grief, 
which can happen with these kinds of relationships. So I'm not judging, but 
just thinking that might be something where you would need a little bit of 
extra support. But I think something like, like six months or anything after 
that still feeling the loss, is okay. And I think it comes in waves. I think it's 
really normal that maybe you have someone who seems great a week 
after and they're doing completely fine the week after that. There's still 
some repercussions from it. That's okay. That's what happens, that's the 
stages of grief. You don't just go through them step by step, but it's a back 
and forth process. 

So how much support does EAR provide because there must be a line 
between what you're capable of doing and providing the extra level of 
support? So if you could tell me about that and perhaps also some signs 
that a person really needs more support than they can get from you. 

Right. So I would say what EAR is... it's a crisis line first. It's the 1-800 line 
to speak with the counselor in the moment if you're in crisis, and that's 
always available. And then there's the EAR which is short term solution 
focused therapy and generally that will be up to between five and up to a 
maximum of eight sessions to help you with that initial grieving process 
and also give some tools around what to do with that too. So EAR is that, 
and then what the EAR counselor can do at that time is make a referral. If 
it's to a psychologist or something more long term. So that's how the EAR 
can deal with it. I think the workplace can deal with it too though, by just 
having an open and supportive group. And what I find a lot is, with 
grieving people is the acute phase is really clear. You know, colleague 
dies, the person close to them a week after, there's a lot of support, but 
that support starts to wane over time and so I think the best thing the 
workplace can do is not allow that support to wane. You know, keep 
asking. Write in your calendar if you need to and just keep asking how that 
person's doing. 

That's some good advice. What are some useful ways that a team or a 
work group can acknowledge or mark the loss of an employee regardless 
of whether the death was sudden or, or something that was expected? 

One thing I think, I mean, each team is different and it really depends on 
the dynamic of the team, how close they are, what their relationships were | todd@, | Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International 






like before. In the past we've done a lot of different stuff. So with our other 
piece, because we have the EAR Employee Assistance Program and then 
the other part of Employee Assistance Services is Specialized 
Organizational Services which is SOS. And with that we'll do a lot of 
organizing, really trying to get custom stuff for the team. Some teams 
maybe they'll do a memorial, maybe they'll do a celebration of the person 
afterward and yearly after they'll mark it or something with some kind of an 
event. Some, it's just getting them together to talk about it after. Other 
ones, maybe it's encouraging counseling for them. A group therapy 
session or something like that. So I think there's a lot of different ways, but 
those are a few things that have worked with the teams. But I guess what 
we try to do as a rule is treat each one as a unique event. 

Do you know what kind of support or training that managers receive for 
handling critical incidents like a fatality in the workplace? 

I'm not 100 percent sure of what different training is being offered. For us, 
we have a few different training things that we do, some basic stuff even 
just around things like mental health first aid or the new one that we're 
offering. The Working Mind, which is kind of giving them some idea of how 
to handle grief and how to talk to employees. And I guess maybe the line. 
I'll draw with it too, because I'm a counselor too, so sometimes I go 
probably too far on the other side of the line. I don't want to encourage 
people. It's not about counseling but it's just learning to listen to 
employees and giving them that space to talk. Or just even maybe it's 
acknowledging it if you're not comfortable, but acknowledging that they're 
hurting, they're in pain and that's okay. So it's not about trying to cure it or 
treat it or anything, it's just leaving the space for it and accepting that 
person who's feeling that. 

Is this something that you market or if a manager feels like this is a void 
that they need to fill as far as how they could deal with this, should it 
happen or when it happens, because I've lost about one person every two 
years that I've been in the public service, and again. I'm not necessarily 
representative, but it seems to happen with more regularity than I wish. 

And I think you're bringing up an important thing that's not talked about 
very often. This is something we deal with. I mean, it happens and it 
happens a lot and it impacts. It's a significant impact on the workplace. For | todd@, | Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International 






us, I think it's kind of recent. I think that people haven't been talking about 
grief in the workplace for very long. I think that initially it was something 
that was kind of buried a little bit. It would happen [but] that everyone will 
go about their work and try to ignore it. And then if some period in the 
future where people seem to still be struggling, then you'd kind of deal 
with it. So I think it's a really recent thing, really, since I've started with the 
public surface where I've noticed the shift where people are finally starting 
to talk about these things. For us, grief specifically, we don't market that a 
lot like the interventions with that, but we do market our services in 
general: our different training that we do, the work that we do with the 
Mental Health Commission. We talk about that stuff. 

How can organizations be better prepared to handle critical incidents? 
Some of the disturbing things that I've heard from employees who have 
gone through crises in the workplace are: Commissionaires that don't 
have first aid training or don't know how to respond to a situation, a lack of 
AEDs on the floor or even in the entire building, missing or outdated floor 
emergency warden lists, and perhaps most disturbingly, the failure to 
address these problems once they've been discovered and once the 
incident has passed. 

I was a warden too and I'm sure I didn't keep the list up as well it should 
have been so... but for addressing it in the workplace, your question was 

How organizations can be better prepared for when these, these crises 

That's a good question, I think, for being prepared for them, so there's the 
physical, but there's a psychological aspect. So they can do things like “I 
could have been a better warden and kept my list up to date better. And 
get my first aid, everyone their first aid better.” And I think some 
organizations do better than others, but there's a structure in place at least 
for how to intervene physically and how to report if there's a missing AED 
or something like that... the machine... things like that that you can report 
on those things. As far as the psychological health though, that's the big 
one. That's the one we're working on now. You know, when I was a 
member of the occupational health and safety committee, that's the 
struggle is how we prepare people for that. And I think it's still being | todd@, | Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International 


solved a little bit. Like 1 think some organizations are trying to have their 
OHS members trained in mental health first aid. For myself, 1 think the 
most important thing is maybe giving direction. And it's the leadership. 

And it's coming from some of the senior management that that is really 
promoting it, that it's okay to care as a manager. 1 feel like a lot of 
managers, 1 think, when something like that happens in the workplace is 
they feel like they need to be strong, that they need to have a really 
commanding presence and step up. And it's okay to be sad. It's okay for 
them to lead in that, to allow their employees to be sad. And there's some 
training that's doing that, but 1 think that's ultimately where we got to go to 
and do more is to allow managers that understanding of how to care for 
their employees and to maybe be open and a little bit vulnerable when 
those things happen. 


1 quite agree. Are there any other final thoughts or ideas that you want to 
share just in closing, things that 1 didn't cover that you think might be 


1 guess around the piece we've been working a lot on is with the National 
Standard [of Canada] for Psychological Health and Safety. I'm a huge 
advocate of it and 1 really think it's going to have a big impact on the work, 
but the people really understand what it's about and what 1 think it's about 
is that is that humanistic part. It's that human that we treat each other 
better in the workplace and if we treat each other in the workplace we'll be 
happier in the workplace. Now, that'll lead to more productivity, but 1 think 
it'll also lead to more satisfying, happy careers, to closer relationships and 
more support when things like this do happen. 


Jeremy, thanks so much for coming in today. 


Thank you. 

[Letter #2] 

I work for a department with a significant proportion of older 
employees. Not surprisingly, retirement is a favourite subject 
of office conversation. My co-workers share their dreams over 
coffee: traveling the world, time with the grandchildren, a | todd@, | Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International 


second career, or... leisure. No post-retirement plan at all. 

Then, there are a few that are resentful of those that can 
retire. From bad choices, bad debt and bad luck, their 
retirement seems unlikely, and those around groan and recoil 
whenever they slip into bitterness and ranting. 

But there was one gentleman - let's call him Frank - who 
belonged to neither group. Frank was well liked because he was a 
hard worker and was very personable. The only thing I ever heard 
him complain about was the high cost of living, especially for a 
single person. From these occasional tidbits, it sounded like 
retirement was not a viable option for him anytime soon. Frank 
was a private person, so I never asked about his personal life 
but he never mentioned children or a wife or girlfriend. 

One day, during our busy season, Frank unexpectedly failed to 
show up for work. Since he always called our manager when he was 
sick, his absence was worrisome. When he failed to show up on 
the second day, we tried to call his emergency contact, but the 
information was out of date. Our manager contacted human 
resources to look into it and on the third day of his absence, 
was given the contact information of Frank's sister. She tried 
to call him at home, and became concerned when there was no 
answer. She asked if our manager would agree to meet her at her 
brother's home and he agreed. I'm sure he now wishes he hadn't. 

They found Frank's vehicle still in the driveway. His cat 
greeted them at the door and it appeared hungry and distressed. 

A terrible smell was coming from the kitchen, and that's where 
they found him, face down, fully dressed in work attire. They 
called for an ambulance but it was clear that he had been in 
that state for days. We were later told that Frank had died of a 
heart attack some days prior to the discovery. 

Our manager was so shaken by the experience he went off on 

Within a couple of weeks of his passing, Frank's work computer 
was removed and his cubicle was reassigned to a new employee. To 
me, it seemed insensitive to reclaim the work space and to fill 
his position this soon. It was like they tried to remove all 
traces of him, as if he never existed. No one even talked about 
him. This made me angry, and doubt that a work team means very | todd@, | Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International 


much when it really doesn't seem to matter how many years you 
work together. In the end, we are each just interchangeable 
parts, working until we break and discarded while the big 
machine moves on, leaving us behind ... unnoticed, unmissed, and 
virtually forgotten except to family and close friends. 

After this experience, I decided to stop working overtime and 
focus on getting the work-life balance that so many talk about 
but somehow never achieve. And instead, to work harder to 
connect with the people I work with, and reach out to people 
that had retired and that I missed. 

I have had to be very deliberate about scheduling coffees and 
breakfasts with people that I was previously "too busy" to see, 
but, it's made me happier and has strengthened personal 
relationships with people that I care about... and especially the 
ones that have retired. 

They know that they're missed. I make sure of it. 


Our understanding is still evolving. 

When we spend more of our waking hours in these buildings than we do at home, the 
emotional gravity between individuals can become significant, especially if we are 
lacking in family size or family support. It hurts to lose the uncle or the grandmother that 
you may only see once a year, but what of the advisor and confidant that you see 
everyday? The people we work with may become our surrogate family, or our an 
extended family, and when they die... we are harmed by it. Their death causes grieving 
of a real loss. Our thoughts are consumed. Our productivity is affected. Our 
relationships with others and the dynamics of the workplace may be disrupted as we all 
cope using our own means and at different speeds. 

[Letter #3] 

I was working in the office side of a manufacturing facility, 
having previously been on the operations side. A fellow employee 
that I had known and worked with on the floor had a sudden heart 
attack while driving a forklift. Some of the co-workers came to 
his aid, including some lab technicians who I was friends with | todd@, | Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International 


and who I spoke with on a regular basis. They got him off the 
forklift and called for help, but unfortunately, he didn't make 

People were very shaken by this death, especially those who 
witnessed it. A number of people also felt angry, as they felt 
that an uncoordinated response by company security and first 
responders - that is, not having all the access points to the 
site open and not doing a good job of directing the ambulance 
and fire truck to the right place in such a large facility - 
might have been a factor in him not making it. Also, some of the 
witnesses felt there were discrepancies between what they saw 
and the official story being told by the company and that 
management was trying to protect themselves. 

A number of the people who witnessed the tragedy were terribly 
shaken by the event and had to take some time off. People were 
emotional, some of them were angry and some of them were just 
zoned out. Right after it happened, I didn't think it had that 
much of an effect on me and didn't spend too much time mourning, 
preferring to just keep busy with my work and hobbies, so I 
didn't seek out EAP or really talk to anyone about it, but later 
I realized that perhaps it got to me more than I initially 
thought, particularly the sudden nature of the death (I had seen 
him that morning on my way in and waved to him), and it was on 
the back of my mind for a while. 

It's very sad and unsettling whenever a colleague passes away, 
especially when it happens suddenly or happens at work. It 
leaves a hole there, and it's a stark reminder as to how fragile 
life can be. 

[Lessons for Managers] 

So what can we say about death in the workplace? First, let's talk about what Managers 
should know. 

• The most important response is communication. Management should 
designate one person to act as the contact for the family of the deceased. 
Colleagues should be gathered together to discuss what has happened as 
soon as possible, remembering to reach out to employees that are off-site or | todd@, | Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International 


on leave. 

• Offering counselling services to employees through the Employee Assistance 
Program can help workplaces to recover in the wake of the death of a 
colleague, however there should be no pressure for employees to use these 
services, or to do so within a particular window of time. We process grief very 
differently. Different stages and different speeds. Denial, anger, bargaining, 
depression and acceptance. 

• Managers don't need to be mental health experts, but should have some 
understanding of the 5 stages stages of grief, and know that the most 
important function they can provide is as a listener and an observer. Grief is 
not problem to solve. It is an individual process. 

• It is important to manage expectations. Even the best functioning, most 
well-supported environment will see a drop in productivity and it may, take 
weeks or months before a workplace sees a return to how it once felt. And 
employees that seem to handle the crisis well initially may experience 
unexpected breakdowns later. 

• Watch and listen carefully to be sensitive of how people are feeling, or just ask 
during a bi-lat. A listening ear can be more helpful than you know. But if an 
individual is not coping well, showing signs of depression or their grieving 
response is beyond the range of emotions seen in others, seek consultation. 

• Providing some flexibility in work hours, workload, or even time off can help 
the people cope with the combined stressors of work and grief. 

• If the workload are re-distributed, be sure to thank the employees dealing with 
the additional responsibilities for their efforts. 

• If the deceased colleagues' family agrees, managers should also keep 
employees updated on any funeral or memorial services being held, either 
formal or informal. Those who wish to attend the funeral or memorial service 
should also be given leave to attend. 

• The workgroup itself should discuss the most appropriate way to honour the 
deceased: planting a tree, making a donation to a charity, or another act that 
would hold special significance. This may be coordinated with the colleague's 

• There should never be a hurry to pack up the belongings of the lost colleague. 
If possible, leave the space undisturbed and allow next to kin to visit the space | todd@, | Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International 


should they wish, so they can see where their loved one worked and take 
what they would like, or even meet colleagues that their loved one had 
identified as significant. Provide assistance to the family as necessary and 
pack the belongings if the family requests. In all cases, notify colleagues of 
how this is being handled. 

• There should be period where this space remains empty, before being 
re-purposed or reallocated. 

• The timeline to hire another person to transition into the organization also 
needs very careful consideration. 

• It is common for employees to assess of whether organizations adequately 
protect them at work: both in providing a safe environment, and responding to 
critical incidents. 

• Workplace productivity is tied to employee perceptions of protection by 
organizations, and there are long-lasting, hard feelings in cases where the 
organization is blamed for inadequate protection, particularly if it is believed 
that issues were known in advance and were not addressed. 

• Likewise, an inadequate response to a crisis causes morale problems and 
trauma which is magnified if there are no identifiable lessons learned and 
concrete steps to improve future critical incident handling. 

• Any lapses in response due to missing or outdated emergency contact 
information, lack of procedures and training, missed inspections and quality 
checks, failure to assign roles to personnel, expired credentials, or missing or 
broken equipment need to be identified and rectified as soon as possible. 

[Letter #4] 

I want to tell you about an unlikely friendship. 

Five years ago, I changed jobs. As the newbie, I was paired up 
with a co-worker that no one else wanted to work with. According 
to the office gossips, he required a lot of oversight. People 
viewed him as overly frugal. I was told that he was lazy and 
only did the portions of the job he enjoyed. They said that he 
purposefully acted incompetent to frustrate the boss and to get 
others to do his job. More than one person told me that his 
paperwork was a mess and that he never would have gotten his 
current position today if he had to compete for it. | todd@, | Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International 


I asked my new teammates why nothing was done about such an 
under-performing problem employee. I was told that the 
departmental culture leaned towards avoidance. Problematic 
employees were placed on teams where they could cause the least 
harm to the department. Apparently, two former managers tried to 
transfer him elsewhere, but were unsuccessful because other 
managers had already heard of him and fought his transfer onto 
their team. Since previous managers provided with him 
satisfactory performance reviews, disciplinary action was out of 
the question. 

My manager told me that he too was guilty of this. Performance 
management is difficult, stressful, and time-consuming, he said, 
and doesn't provide a lot of return on investment. He felt too 
tired and overworked to have to deal with it and so his solution 
was to assign someone on the team to oversee Mr. C's work and to 
assist him in cleaning up any messes he made. I was mad. Forcing 
a new employee to babysit a difficult employee without his 
knowledge was a union grievance just waiting to happen. 

However, not wanting to rock the boat, I rolled up my sleeves 
and met Mr. C head on. My first impressions of him were not 
good. He had a terrible comb-over, his pants were pulled up too 
high, and the buttons on his shirt looked ready to pop off. His 
general appearance was unkempt. His eyes were staring blankly at 
his computer monitor and he was sucking on his fingers in a 
peculiar way. It made me wonder if he had a disability of some 
kind. No one had even hinted at a disability. Perhaps he had a 
valid reason for his odd behaviour? 

Over the next several months, I worked closely with Mr. C. It 
wasn't easy. I tried to get to know and understand him as a 
person and finally reached the conclusion that this was no act. 
Something psychological or medical was definitely wrong, but his 
actions were so frustrating to people that no-one cared to look 
deeper into him. He definitely required more patience than the 
average person was willing to give and this ultimately strained 
his working relationships. 

By approaching Mr. C from an understanding perspective, it 
helped me to feel less irritated and more compassionate towards 
him, and he began to open up to me about his life. He was in his | todd@, | Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International 


50s. His wife had passed away quite suddenly some years ago and 
he didn't know how to cope when she died, and he'd suffered a 
nervous breakdown. He said that he enjoyed eating out and 
travelling, but no longer had anyone to enjoy these with. He 
stopped going to church altogether and joined multiple online 
dating sites. However, none of his attempts ever resulted in a 
lasting relationship, leaving him feeling lonely and depressed. 
He told me that he hadn't changed jobs since before his wife 
passed and that he didn't know what to do with himself outside 
of work. He would visit his siblings and their families from 
time to time, but otherwise, he was alone. 

Our good working relationship had a positive impact on different 
areas of his life. He started to look less disheveled, showed 
more interest in his duties, and the overall quality of his work 
was better. Even my manager noticed the difference and told me 
how happy he was with "the situation". Mr X. and I started 
swapping stories at work about our lives. He talked about 
getting a pet and some his favourite restaurants. Eventually, we 
reached the point where he felt comfortable asking me to join 
him for a Friday lunch. 

One day after lunch, Mr X and I were discussing the topic of 
retirement. I'd heard it said more than once in the office that 
management was hoping to push him toward early retirement to 
avoid dealing with him. I asked him how he felt about retirement 
in general. He said that he had some health issues but that he 
wasn't ready to retire. His finances were in order but he wanted 
to wait until he reached his full pensionable service of 35 
years. He was convinced that the few extra dollars were 
important. I was confused by his values. To me, money wasn't 
everything in life. I cautioned him that life doesn't always go 
according to plan, and that perhaps he should think about making 
post-retirement plans to make his transition easier. He said 
that he would think about it, but I don't think he ever did. 

And a few months later, his health deteriorated and he ended up 
in the hospital. His family was advised that one of his organs 
was failing and that a successful transplant looked unlikely. He 
was given months to live, which I don't think he ever accepted. 
He continued to downplay the seriousness of his health problems 
and would call the office from time to time asking about work 
and whether anyone was backfilling his role while he was away. | todd@, | Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International 


One time, he even asked if we could put aside his personal items 
and food from the fridge for him to pick up as soon as he was 
released. While it wasn't my place to say anything, I did tell 
him not worry about work. It seemed that he was overwhelmed by 
his situation at the hospital and distracted himself with the 
job as a coping mechanism. Avoidance seemed to be how he managed 
in life, just as he'd done after his wife's death. 

One day, his sister emailed our manager to tell him that Mr. C 
had slipped into a coma and wasn't expected to last much longer. 
He died in his sleep a few days later and funeral notice was 
circulated. When I saw it, I wondered how many people would 
actually attend, if only out of respect. Given his history in 
the office, I doubted that anyone would really miss him. How 
could they when they didn't really know him? 

The department's clumsy handling of the situation disturbed me. 
Mr. C wasn't even buried before his IT Equipment was removed and 
his cabinets were emptied. I attended the funeral and briefly 
met his extended family. I looked around and saw people there 
who openly mocked him. It made me view them less favourably 
after that. Why show up to a man's funeral when you aren't able 
to show kindness while he was alive? 

Mr. C was a troubled and lonely person in need of guidance. 

While we are all aware of employee assistance programs, no one 
referred him for help. He spent years living in oblivion and as 
the object of ridicule. It took me months to figure out why. I 
think he feared change. Work was familiar and it provided him 
with stability and security and distraction. Retirement meant 
and end to routine, and what that would mean: nothing to do, and 
no-one to do it with. 

It makes me wonder, how many public servants keep working out of 
fear? Fear that they'll run out of money if we don't save and 
save. Fear that they'll have nothing to do if the job ends. Fear 
that the choices they made in life turned the job into the only 
thing they have, and that nothing, and no-one waits for them at 
home. That there is no home, just a place to sleep when they're 
not at work. 

I don't see this in myself, but I feel it around me every day. 
Too many people living to work, instead of working to live. | todd@, | Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International 


[Lessons for Employees] 

What should employees know about this experience? 

• First, accept that how you are feeling is normal, and that it will be some time 
before you feel alright again. Even emptiness is a feeling. There is no right or 
wrong way to experience grief. Just the point you at which you begin, and 
path it takes you. 

• Recovery isn't a straight line. You can be be in a state where you feel almost 
like your old self, but then be completely overcome with intense emotions 
triggered by something you see, or hear, or a stray thought in your head, or 
even the date on the calendar. Holidays, anniversaries, and birthdays, can 
cause old feelings to come flooding back. 

• Accept that not everyone is comfortable or experienced in being around 
someone who is grieving. They may not know how to respond to you and may 
avoid you out of discomfort, or may assume you wish be left alone. 

• You can help by letting people know what you need. That you understand that 
there isn't anything that can be done, but just being there for you means a lot. 

• Share your feelings with friends and family and search out supportive people 
who can listen: employee assistance services, grief support groups, or even 
the local crisis line or distress centre. 

• Take some time off work if you can, and talk with your supervisor or manager 
about a temporary adjustment in work hours or work load. Negotiate flexible 
hours if needed. 

• People respond to loss differently, so think about what feels right for you. 

• Some find it very difficult to return to work, whereas for others, getting back to 
a regular routine and avoiding any special activities or remembrances related 
to the loss or death, may be the best way of coping with the change. 

• It may be necessary to be more explicit in your approach to work, making 
to-do lists where the tasks are reviewed and prioritized. 

• While it can be difficult to work and arguably a way of avoiding real coping, 
being away and alone also has its drawbacks. Remaining completely 
enveloped in reflecting on grief can be self-perpetuating, prolonging the | todd@, | Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International 


feelings or making you feel worse. 

• And, there are some genuine benefits in returning to work. It's healthy, and 
recommended, to resume a regular daily routine again. Work is a known 
environment where you'll have access to friendly colleagues but also the 
ability to slip away for a phone call or a moment away if you need it. 

• Work forces you to focus on something else for extended periods, and allows 
you to feel more like your old self again for periods of time. Finishing tasks 
and completing projects can also increase confidence and raise self esteem. 
The feeling that you are still contributing something to your colleagues or your 
team can be a big boost. It can also make you feel less guilty when you have 
periods of grief that return and you again need some understanding or a 
caring ear again. 

• You are not being a burden. Everyone knows that you've been giving what 
you can despite what you've been through, including you. So, accept the little 
setbacks as they come. Give what you can, and take when you need to. 

You've been listening to Toddcast, Season 3, Episode 2. 

Today's episode was brought to you by gumption. Making things happen that 
might have otherwise been let go, in favour of the much easier option. And also by 
Stephanie Moulton, because gumption goes a whole lot further when you know the 
person who knows the person you should be talking to, if only you knew. 

My thanks also to those who wrote to share their stories, both publicly and 

All opinions expressed on Toddcast are strictly those of the individual and are not 
necessarily those of their employer. 

Special thanks to: 

Maria Belen, Brenda Bouw, Dr. Peter Cotton, Teresa Dauphinais, Dr. Kirsti Dyer, 
Kellie Evers, Adam Fritz, Abe Greenspoon, Stacey lleleji, Terry Kelly, Sean 
Kibbee, Brian Latour, Annie Leblond, Val Loudfoot, Darlene Marion, Joy Moskovic, 
Steph Moulton, Katherine Parker, Pierre-Luc Pilon, Pierre-Luc Poisson, Ian 
Renaud, Raveena Sidhu, Eric Shoesmith, Mark Trepanier, George Wenzel, and... 
loana Finichiu, for their support and contributions to the Toddcast community. 

You can support us, too. Wherever you found us - iTunes, Google Play Music, | todd@, | Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International 


stitcher, social media, or... on my website - let us know you heard Toddcast, and 
help us to reach a little further in getting meaningful content out to the public 
service of Canada. Become a subscriber, share the episodes, rate our content, 
and write, and let us know what's on your mind. You can reach me at todd @, or, start a conversation with your fellow listeners on the Toddcast 
group on GCconnex. 

Toddcast is planned, written, and technically produced using free and open source 
software: Kanboard, DokuWiki, and Audacity running on Kubuntu Linux and Linux 
Mint XFCE edition. Software that is free as in cost, but more importantly, free as in 

This episode's theme music was “Gymnopedies, part 1, Lent et douloureux” 
composed by Erik Satie and performed by OnClassical and is licensed under the 
Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike Noncommercial license. The segment 
music for listener letters was produced by the CEM Music Project, and is licensed 
under the same CC-BY-SA-NC license. 

Toddcast content is free to use and share under the Creative Commons Attribution 
Share-Alike license because, like open source, open content and open licensing 
makes the world a better place. 

I'm Todd Lyons. I'll see you online. | todd@, | Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International